Saturday, June 16, 2018

Authorisation: "We"

I hope I had the sense to think this thought before the year 2000, but my second trip to Romania is the earliest example I can bring to mind.  Even then, I didn't fully put the pieces together until I came home. We had been on a food-delivering run to the village of Cucuceni, and on the way back swung by the train station in Rieni and picked up this guy. How the driver knew he would be there I have no clue. Planned things never happen in Romania, unplanned ones go off without a hitch somehow.

Someone said he was the pastor of a house church in one of the villages.  For Baptists, almost all the churches were house churches, meeting in secret or at least unobtrusively even in the 1990's.  They were still nervous that the Securitate would go back to its old ways and start carting them off or even shooting them. I was later told that he wasn't a "real pastor," just a guy who tried to run things. His English was passable, and as we passed an orthodox church he started in telling me how terrible the orthodox priests were.  They were all drunks, he said. One was so drunk that he fell in front of a train. They never went and visited the poor.  They hated The Christians and turned them in to the secret police. We had not even exchanged pleasantries before he launched into this.  I expected the Romanians in the car to slow him down a bit, but none did.

It seemed strange because one of the points stressed by the ministry during my two weeks there is how much they were working to cooperate with the Orthodox who used to persecute them, and the government that used to persecute them, and the powerful neighbors who used to persecute them, and to reach out to the gypsies who everyone hated and persecuted. This guy hadn't gotten the message, apparently.  I certainly wasn't going to contradict him.  He was in his 50's and had likely experienced some bad things, so rich Americans who had always lived in peace shouldn't be preaching to him. Still, he wouldn't stop. Then he started to drift into what "we" Christians were going to do about it now that "we" were more free.  Nothing violent, just put them out of business, close their monasteries, he was going to see to that...We dropped him off in Beius near where we were staying. "He has had a hard time," the driver said.  Nothing more.

Only long after did I wonder why he thought he was authorised to speak for The Christians. Did he mean those within a ten-mile radius?  All of Transylvania? Romania? There were other lines of thought, but that one escaped me until months later. It leads to unanswerables. Is he dangerous?  Are there others like him so that collectively they do speak for some undefined group of Christians? Are tyrants simply effective versions of this angry man who seems to have no followers? And yet, the people I was working with also used the word "we" when discussing the activities of Baptists in the area.  They have clear authorisation to speak for their ministry, which was a major part of the local activity.  But I knew there were plenty of people not formally affiliated involved in all this.  How far did the authorisation of my friends to say "we" extend?

I now think of this fairly automatically when I read about people who speak for others. Who authorised you? They even speak for the dead - that's convenient - of those who were in one of their groups generations ago. We crossed the prairie and founded this town. We were brought here as slaves. We won the state championship in 1985. We have always been generous to the poor. We have been oppressed by men for a millennium, one of the professors at a local university recently said. "We? You got a mouse in your pocket?" used to be the teasing correction to that. You crossed the prairie?  You've been a slave?

It's a tactic.  It is a declaration of authority, so that one looks important.  If you can get away with it, at some level it's true. No one stops the school principal from saying "we" about that championship even though she was living 472 miles away at the time.  She does have some authority to say "we," as the institutional representative. Politicians do this in an effort to look like people who are authorised to speak for us - or for some percentage of us. It is not always a lie. We sometimes do have authority to speak for others.  If we are good speakers or leaders or negotiators, the people we claim to be speaking for won't stop us when we make the claim. They might heartily endorse it, or might just uncomfortably go along for the moment, but they do allow people to slip into that slot of representation.

Be suspicious of who you allow to slip into that slot, and don't be afraid to challenge, openly or quietly, those who make the claim without earning it.


William Newman said...

It's an interesting point. I've long noticed and complained about the aggressive --- and ridiculous, at the level of pissing on my leg and telling me it's raining --- use of the pretense that everyone holds some view as a justification for actions which immediately reveal that not everyone holds that view. It comes up a lot in modern "law", esp. Constitutional "law": social standards have changed so much that we can read something new into the "law". This tends to be very unconvincing when evidently we can't change the actual law by ordinary means because in fact too many people --- often far too many people --- do not support the change. That particular inversion of the truth often comes along with aggressively incorrect use of the word "we" (more or less along the lines of the preceding sentences here, and, I think, the original post).

But there are also situations where I use the word "we" pretty aggressively nonliterally and don't see a great alternative. It can be evasive in about the same way that the passive voice is, and like the passive voice, that can be used for ill, but can also be pretty much what (ahem) we want to express. In talking of less-politically charged social changes, such as changes in technical knowledge, I might talk about how e.g. "we" understand today that energy is exactly interconvertible between forms (kinetic energy, potential energy, heat, chemical energy...), and usually it feels as though I'm not going to convey anything useful by trying to be any more precise about exactly what subpopulation understands this.

I'm not sure where the rodent-in-the-pocket question is supposed to be used, but I'd probably be annoyed to have it come up in the second kind of case. Indeed, now that I think of it, there are technical statements which are even more extreme: "we can never perfectly undo a flow of heat from a hot object into a cold object" is pretty much synonymous with "you can never..." and in both cases the first word is almost as figurative as the word "there" in a passive voice construction like "there is a small chance".

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I agree with that difference in use in a scientific context. I would just be careful if it trends over into "We now know..." That might be valid, or it might be an opinion being stretched.

Texan99 said...

I identify with groups in the past when I can imagine being plopped down into their situation and being treated as they were treated, not because of anything important about myself but because I would automatically be lumped in with their group as a result of something that seems unimportant to me in context. It doesn't mean it happened to me, only that it exemplifies what could happen to me if people make that same cognitive, philosophical, or politico-social error. It could happen to anyone else, too, but the emotional impact is greater if it could happen to me.

Tom Grey said...

The son is not guilty of the sins of the father.

The biggest threat to America is the increasing tribalism of those who want changes of one kind or another. The "Us vs Them" / in-group out-group dynamics are emphasized with tribes.

A key aspect of a tribe includes inter-generation continuity. Thus, if one is a white (like me), and whites in the past were slave-owners, there might be some semantic truth to the claim that "we were slaveholders". Many ancestors of whites in America were never slave-holders (not in last 1000 years), yet many were. I don't accept the guilt, today, of what some whites did 200-400 years ago.

Yet it's understandable, but regrettable, that blacks in America can claim "we were slaves", because many black ancestors were slaves. The BLM folk certainly seem willing to claim authorization for complaining, today, about wrongs from 200 years ago.

Throughout Africa and the Middle East and even Europe, every ethnic group has in its history some periods of being the unjust victims of some oppressors.

There is no fair and just way, today, for any compensation based on prior oppression of a group -- but prior wrongs continue to be used to justify current unjust treatments against innocents, new injustices.

The world doesn't get peace thru this process, nor even greater justice.